October 15, 2003

Italics and stuff

At the end of a recent book review in The Economist [October 4th, 2003, p.81] I read that the book under review “could have done with less sociological jargon and fewer annoying italics.”

Fewer what? That doesn't sound quite right. What has gone wrong? I think I see what might have happened in the editing process here, and it makes an interesting illustration of the way you need quite a sophisticated understanding of grammar just to apply the standard prescriptive rules.

It is a long-established prescriptive rule of English that you use fewer with count nouns and less with non-count: less tea, but fewer tea bags. It is regarded as a solecism to say We have less tea bags than I thought. It is a reasonable enough distinction for people to want to maintain, it really does prevent ambiguities in some cases, and editors tend to enforce is fairly tightly. I think an editor tried to enforce it at The Economist the night before October 4th.

But of course, to enforce it you have to be able to distinguish count from non-count nouns. Non-count nouns generally don't appear in the plural (it's true that teas can occur, but it always means `cups of tea' or `kinds of tea' or something like that -- it has to refer to some things, not just to some stuff, which means it has to take on a use as a count noun). So it might seem that you could rely on the principle that less should be corrected to fewer when followed by a plural noun. And I suspect that an editor at The Economist made this understandable error.

But italics is not like antics or critics, which are count plurals; it is one of those morphological plurals in -ics, like politics and linguistics, that function as non-count singulars (for a thorough discussion of these words, see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p. 347). You don't talk about wishing there were “fewer politics” around the office; you say less politics, just as you would say less hostility or less backstabbing, because politics is conceived of as stuff, not as things. And material in italic typeface is too.

The test for a count noun is simply to try the word with numbers (see The Cambridge Grammar, p. 334): We talk of material being in italics, but we don't say *one italic, or *two italics. The word italics is a plural ending in -s morphologically, but it doesn't have a singular and it isn't syntactically the plural of a count noun.

So the less/fewer distinction is not relevant here at all. To say less sociological jargon and less annoying italics would have been fully grammatical, and in fact that could be reduced to less sociological jargon and annoying italics, saving a repeated word.

It all goes to show that if you're going to apply prescriptive rules, you really can't do it blindly or automatically. Automatism is for the lower animals. The lesson here is that you actually need to have a pretty good control of descriptive grammar before you can intelligently engage in prescriptive grammar.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 15, 2003 11:38 PM